Sunday, January 23, 2005

God and Evil

My post on natural evil received several interesting comments from Macht and Brandon. To quickly summarize: they basically argued for the 'ignorance' response, i.e. just because we can't imagine why a morally perfect being would allow evil, that doesn't necessarily mean that there is no such reason; an omniscient being would know all sorts of stuff we don't! I don't think is a very good response, though, as I argued there:
Let's suppose for a moment that an omnipotent, omniscient deity exists. Your argument implies that there is nothing [this] God could possibly do which would justify us doubting his benevolence. If he turned Earth into Hell and tortured us for all eternity, you could answer "he might have a reason, you can't know cos you're not omniscient like he is". Really. That's just absurd.

One could also turn it around to defend the claim that God is omni-malevolent, or perfectly evil. This strikes us as silly, of course - just look at all the good in the world! - but if the 'ignorance' response is sound then identical logic can be used to negate all such evidence. Sure, it seems to us that the world contains goodness, and it's hard to see why a perfectly evil agent would want to allow this. But we can't be sure that an omniscient evil-doer couldn't have some hidden reason to allow these goods. Perhaps it's all part of their plan, and serves to bring about some 'greater evil' which is beyond our comprehension.

So I think the biggest problem with the ignorance response is that it makes us too ignorant. Such extreme skepticism just seems entirely unwarranted. It's obvious that the world is too good to take any suggestion of an evil-God seriously. Similarly, the world is not good enough for an omni-benevolent God.

This then leads to Macht's intriguing suggestion that God simply isn't omnibenevolent:
God is good, but he is only good to us in the ways he promises to be good to us. And these promises don't include anything like "maximizing the happiness of all people" or "making sure no bad things happen to anybody, ever."

Put like that, he doesn't really sound any better than any averagely-decent, promise-keeping human being. And of course if one takes the Bible literally (*shudder*) then he sounds even worse than your average person. But I guess this formulation could be tightened up so that God is still impressively good, yet not 'omnibenevolent'. I'd consider that a respectable solution to the problem of evil.

Even better, I think, would be to deny omnipotence. I actually find the idea of a benevolent but powerless deity rather appealing - it would just add so much more meaning to our lives if God actually needed us. Our choices would actually matter in the 'fight against evil' (I mean this in the fantasy-novel sense, not the neo-conservative sense). If God is both omniscient and omnipotent, by contrast, then "all the world's a stage", for surely nothing we do would be allowed to get in the way of his ultimate plan.

Further, as mentioned in the earlier post, if we allow an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God on the basis of the 'ignorance' defence, it seems to rob us of any moral responsibility. Such a God would ensure that things turned out for the best, so there'd be no point in us meddling. If God wanted a tsunami-victim saved, he could easily do so himself. The fact that he didn't would seem to imply that harming the victim is all part of his divine 'plan'. So why should we interfere with that? Why should we help others if God doesn't - wouldn't it be hubris to presume to know better than him?

Come to think of it, one might plausibly use this line of thinking to explain why God must never interfere with the world. Human moral responsibility is surely a very important good (right up there with the old favourite of 'free will'). Yet it seems the only way to protect this is to ensure that we believe that God won't prevent evils, and that it is instead up to us to do so (to the best of our ability). The main problem with this response is that only the belief is necessary - it need not be true. So God should secretly prevent evils whenever he can do so without our noticing.

Alternatively, one could deny God omniscience (and omni-benevolence with it), as Raymond Feist does in his fantasy novels, if memory serves (I read them many years ago). The idea, then, is that it's up to us to teach God, to show him what 'works' and what doesn't. I find this by far the most appealing religious picture I've ever come across. Imagine the responsibility! It's up to us to ensure that God turns out well, that he learns right from wrong, and so forth. Wouldn't it be grand! (I suppose I could just have kids of my own, but I don't imagine any of them would turn out to be omnipotent.)

Lastly, I suppose, we could dispense with wishful thinking altogether and just admit that we're the only 'intelligent designers' playing in this corner of the cosmic ballpark. This is not nearly so fun as the previous suggestion, I admit, but it has the added advantage of being true, which may count for something. [Begging the what? I don't see no question. Shush, you.]

Update: Macht responds here.


  1. "So I think the biggest problem with the ignorance response is that it makes us too ignorant."

    First let me say that saying that we don't know isn't really a defense, it's a fact. Nobody knows why it happened. Some claim there is no why, others claim there is a why but we just don't know what it is. Your argument fails because you jump from not knowing to knowing not. The only way you can do that is by already assuming God doesn't exist. You recognize this, however, since you claim that your argument isn't "a decisive refutation." To get around this you say that if we can't imagine a reason, there probably isn't one. But this is nothing more than an argument from incredulity - the exact same reasoning that are behind "god of the gaps" arguments. "I can't conceive of ______, therefore it can't be."

    "Put like that, he doesn't really sound any better than any averagely-decent, promise-keeping human being."

    I'm going to respond to this on my blog soon, but for now I want to point out that you didn't respond to my main point concerning omnibenevolence. My point was that you are treating omnibenevolence as something like "maximizing the happiness of all people" or "making sure no bad things happen to anybody, ever." Your argument works, whether we are talking about God allowing a tsunami to happen or whether we are talking about God allowing the wind to blow and mess up my hair before a big date. Again, I'm not comparing these two things with regards to how evil they are - there is obviously no comparison. What I am saying is that your argument works for either of them and is therefore too broad. Furthermore, any reasoning you might give for the reasons God might have for allowing my hair to get messed up will ruin your argument from incredulity above.

    In other words, nobody believes in "true" omnibenevolence except for a few people who are trying to prove that God doesn't exist. Nobody believes that God is going to prevent anything, anywhere from going wrong.

    This essentially goes back to what Brandon said in his first comment in the other post about "the problem of natural evil presuppos[ing] that if theism is true creation's value consists entirely or primarily in its value for us." (my emphasis) God didn't create the universe in order to bring about the best possible state for us.  

    Posted by Macht

  2. It sounds to me that Macht's denial of omnibenevolence to God really just amounts to saying that God's not a consequentialist. That is, I take Macht to be arguing that God cares about things other than maximizing the total amount of value in the world. Given the world obviously isn't as good as it could be, this seems like a reasonable way to square omnibenevolence, omnipotence, the facts about the world, and the facts about value.

    I don't think that making God a non-consequentialist in this sense makes him no better than "any averagely-decent, promise-keeping human being." For all we know, God's non-consequentialism is *correct*. That is, for all we know, God would be doing *wrong* if he were to act so as to maximize the amount of value in the world. 

    Posted by david

  3. David, I agree that one could imagine a morally outstanding God - indeed, I thought I said as much in my post. My point was simply that they way Macht specificly described him as good there - 'good in the ways he promises to be' - is nothing very remarkable.

    Further, I'm not sure that non-consequentialism could save omnibenevolence. Take the act-type of "allowing a great evil (e.g. tsunami) to ravage the world, when one could easily prevent it". This looks like the sort of act-type that deontologists might say is morally prohibited, yet God clearly does it all the time.

    In short: any moral code which excuses one from preventing evil (when one could easily do so), is not a very plausible one.

    "What I am saying is that your argument works for either of them and is therefore too broad."

    Macht, we discussed this in the other thread. As I said then, either we can imagine a reason why God would allow such minor harms, or we cannot. If we can (as isn't difficult), then the cases are not analogous. If we cannot, then it really is a problem for God's omnibenevolence: why not prevent even minor harms? (Surely preventing any sort of a harm is, ceteris paribus, a good thing?)

    So the big difference, I think, is that it isn't difficult to see why a morally perfect being might allow such minor harms. By contrast, everything we know about morality suggests that it's wrong to allow millions to suffer if you can easily prevent it. Perhaps this is an "argument from incredulity". Or perhaps it's just plain common sense. It doesn't much matter either way, because my point is just to establish what we are most justified in believing. Given our epistemic position, the most justified position is to doubt that a benevolent being would want the world to be as bad as it is. If you deny this, insisting on an agnostic ignorance, it raises all the skeptical problems discussed in the main post.

    "you didn't respond to my main point concerning omnibenevolence."

    You mean, that God is 'omnibenevolent' in some special sense of the word that means something entirely different from omnibenevolence? You say "God didn't create the universe in order to bring about the best possible state for us." That's fine, but it sure isn't what I mean by omnibenevolence. A morally perfect being would want to prevent the awful harms we suffer. God doesn't. Ergo, God isn't morally perfect.

    You said yourself, "If you think this means that I shouldn't use the word 'omnibenevolent' to describe God, that's fine". I was just agreeing on this point - I do think that what you're describing is something other than omnibenevolence, so it would be misleading to appropriate that word. Given that you more or less conceded this yourself, I'm rather confused as to what "main point" of yours I've failed to respond to? 

    Posted by Richard

  4. You haven't given a reason why God would cause the wind to blow and mess up my hair. Whatever reason you give (e.g., it's better than the alternative, to teach me a lesson, to build my character, God was angry at my sin, etc.) could equally be used as a reason for the tsunami. And that would ruin your "If we can't imagine ..." argument. And if you can't come up with a reason then your argument is too broad. You haven't yet, though, you've just said you could. I don't think it is as easy as you seem to think it is.

    "Perhaps this is an "argument from incredulity". Or perhaps it's just plain common sense. "

    You know better than to say that. If I said "I can't imagine how something can come about by natural causes therefore naturalism is false" you'd be all over that.

    My main point regarding omnibenevolence is that very few people (not just me) believe in omnibenevolence in the way you are using it. (What I believe is different than most people but that's a different issue.) If that is true - that few believe God is trying to maximize everybody's happiness or make sure that no bad things happen to nobody - then it doesn't really change anybody's belief. And if you don't mean it in the way I described earlier, I would like to know what you do mean by it. But it seems like you do mean it that way, but we can come up with possible reasons for why God would allow the little things. Not actual reasons - we would still have to plead ignorance on that - just possible reasons. 

    Posted by Macht

  5. > For all we know, God's non-consequentialism is *correct*.

    actually it is correct by definition.. as in .. "are you going to fight him over it?" If any one has the right to define the rules the god does much more so than the colective human race.

    A god could say that "death is good at the right time" afterall they are going to heaven or limbo or wherever anyway...
    but it is bad for us to cause it bcause we dont have the information of god to know when everyone is supposedto die. 

    Posted by GeniusNZ

  6. GeniusNZ,
    I don't agree that God's moral code is correct by definition, though that's certainly a defensible view. Here's a webpage which mentions some of the initial pros and cons of that view: 

    Posted by david

  7. Actually, Richard, if I remember correctly, I denied that my objection was a standard ignorance objection; rather, it was a claim that people who use the argument from evil weren't taking their premises seriously enough (in particular, the omniscience premise), and so weren't actually showing any legitimate contradiction.

    In other words, my objections was not that I am ignorant but that atheists are ignorant. ;) More seriously: arguments from evil can be formulated as searches of the field of omniscience for what would be the right solution for an omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good being to do; but people who use the argument tend in practice to misformulate it as what would be the right solution for us, as rational animals with duties and responsibilities specific to our being finite, non-omniscient rational animals, if we could manage. In other words, they move on the assumption that God is just a super-big human being. But then the argument from evil involves an equivocation: God is not a finite, non-omniscient rational animal.

    I think, though, that you are not quite giving the ignorance objection its due. One of the traditional proponents of the ignorance objection, Bishop Butler, explicitly rejects skepticism: we know from the progress of science that we often don't know all the natural laws that are involved in a particular phenomenon; recognizing this is not skepticism but good sense, since it enables us to be clear about what we do, in fact, know, and to see where further progress is possible. Likewise, there's no reason to think we already have in hand all moral rules; we can make progress in our understanding of the moral character of a situation. And we need to recognize this if we are to make any progress at all. As I noted in response to the post on the subject at Positive Liberty, the objection is not that we can't make progress on the subject (e.g., it is not a denial that we can learn more about God's purposes); it is that the atheist has not shown that we can't make progress on it (which is effectively what the argument from evil has to show: that the theist can make no possible progress on this issue). 

    Posted by Brandon

  8. Also, if God did have a good reason or a greater good which justified the existence of evil, he would also need a reason or greater good not to let us know if not what it is, at least that he has one.

    The thing I find most perplexing about the proponents of the greater good 'theodicy' is that it is most often argued by people who believe in moral absolutes.

    "Thou Shalt Not Kill"
    "But look God just killed all thos people with a big wave!"
    "Yeah but I'm sure he had a good reason" 

    Posted by Illusive Mind

  9. "The thing I find most perplexing about the proponents of the greater good 'theodicy' is that it is most often argued by people who believe in moral absolutes."

    This is, I think, precisely what I was talking about: there is no contradiction in saying that there is a moral law L that is binding on human beings and not binding on nonhuman agents; such a moral law can be an absolute in the sense that its moral force for human beings will not be relative to culture, education, temperament, etc.; it does not follow that it will be relevant to nonhumans (or even to all human beings in all situations, since the possibility of following it or violating it may never even come up). The assumption that it will be trades on an equivocation. 

    Posted by Brandon

  10. david,
    what would create the system by which god would have to measure himself against except god? who would define those rules?
    As to the points
    iii - I think there is no need to make god's goodness praiseworthy - afterall anyone who is "good" thinks they can run things better than god in as far as they could just say "do what god does EXCEPT make sand a yummy food" - but they praise him anyway for goodness. I dont se a way out of that.
    ii - I dont see his comands as arbitrary in that one might be able to see a simple and compelling logic if one was in his position with his intelect - but we are not. Anyway he makes the rules as well as acts under them so in a sense the esence of "consistancy" or "morals" are arbitrary and part of his actions (at the god level).
    i - morality is contingent (at hte human level).


    Posted by GeniusNZ

  11. better answer to iii -
    good or evil is presumably effortless to an omnipotent being so good has no cost associated with it. and thus is only praiseworthy in an absolute sense as opposed to as part of an individual. 

    Posted by GeniusNZ

  12. Don’t eat shellfish is a moral law that can easily be seen as applicable to humans and not God. Why? Because presumably God doesn’t eat anything.
    It is not speciest to have such a separate rule because there is a relevant difference.

    However if God did eat and had opportunity to eat shellfish it what sense is it not speciest or illogical or hypocritical to have one law for humans and another for God seeing as there are no relevant differences?

    But regardless of shellfish, the principle of moral absolutes is not a moral law.

    Either things are absolutely right and wrong or they are not. If they are, then it doesn’t matter who or what performs the action, it is wrong, that is what the absoluteness refers to. I can see nothing but hypocrisy it relegating absolutism to one people but a kind of utilitarianism to another.

    Posted by Illusive Mind

  13. "...Yet it seems the only way to protect this is to ensure that we believe that God won't prevent evils, and that it is instead up to us to do so (to the best of our ability). The main problem with this response is that only the belief is necessary - it need not be true. So God should secretly prevent evils whenever he can do so without our noticing..."

    semantics, but why is this a 'main problem'? You seem to assume god doesn't secretly prevent evil w/o us knowing - but you have no reason to think he doesn't. 

    Posted by Razamitaz

  14. Raz, It's clear that there's a lot of evil that has occurred which God *could* have prevented without us ever noticing (he is supposed to be omnipotent and omniscient, after all). The tsunami, for instance. 

    Posted by Richard

  15. Not that I am entirely buying into this argument but maybe we were SUPPOSED to have prevented the tsunami and exactly how we caused it will become apparent later (maybe in a few centuries).
    Because small events can have big concequences one could say
    god set up a perfect system that would have opperated perfectly except it was fragile so that we could effect it. 

    Posted by GeniusNZ

  16. Richard, can a car manufacturer be blamed for an accident caused by a customers poor driving skills ?


  17. If he also designed the customer and bestowed those poor skills, then certainly yes. And of course not all natural evil is traceable to human error in the first place.


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